The axioms of communication

From Wikipedia…

Watzlawick did extensive research on how communication is effected within families. Watzlawick defines five basic axioms in his theory on communication, popularly known as the “Interactional View”. The Interactional View is an interpretive theory drawing from the cybernetic tradition. The five axioms are necessary in order to have a functioning communication process and competence between two individuals or an entire family. When it comes to this theory, miscommunication happens because all of the communicators are not “speaking the same language”. This happens because people have different viewpoints of speaking. Its principles are cybernetic, its causality is of a circular, feedback nature, and, with information being its core element, it is concerned with the processes of communication within systems of the widest sense—and therefore also with human systems, e.g., families, large organizations and even international relations.

The communication within the “Interactional View” is based on what is happening, and not necessarily associated with who, when, where, or why it takes place. “Normal” as well as the “disturbed” family is studied in order to infer conditions conducive to the approach of interaction-orientation. It is believed that individual personality, character, and deviance are shaped by the individual’s relations with his fellows. Thus, symptoms, defenses, character structure and personality can be seen as terms describing the individual’s typical interactions which occur in response to a particular interpersonal context. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and it is that whole in which we are interested.

Five basic axioms

The Interactional View requires a network of communication rules that govern a family homeostasis, which is the tacit collusion of family members to maintain the status quo. Even if the status quo is negative it can still be hard to change. Interactional theorists believe that we will fail to recognize this destructive resistance to change unless we understand Watzlawick’s axioms. The following axioms can explain how miscommunication can occur if all the communicators are not on the same page. If one of these axioms is somehow disturbed, communication might fail. All of these axioms are derived from the work of Gregory Bateson, much of which is collected in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972).

Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson support these axioms to maintain family homeostatis.

One cannot not communicate: Every behavior is a form of communication. Because behavior does not have a counterpart (there is no anti-behavior), it is impossible not to communicate. Even if communication is being avoided (such as the unconscious use of non-verbals or symptom strategy), that is a form of communication. “Symptom strategy” is ascribing our silence to something beyond our control and makes no communication impossible. Examples of symptom strategy are sleepiness, headaches, and drunkenness. Even facial expressions, digital communication, and being silent can be analyzed as communication by a receiver.

Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication: All communication includes, apart from the plain meaning of words, more information. This information is based on how the speaker wants to be understood and how he himself sees his relation to the receiver of information. Relationship is the command part of the message or how it is non-verbally said. Content is the report or what is said verbally. Being able to interpret both of these aspects is essential in understanding something that a communicator said. The relational aspect of interaction is known as metacommunication. Metacommunication is communication about communication. Relationship messages are always the most important element in communication.

The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners communication procedures: Both the sender and the receiver of information structure the communication flow differently and therefore interpret their own behavior during communicating as merely a reaction on the other’s behavior (i.e., every partner thinks the other one is the cause of a specific behavior). To punctuate a communication means to interpret an ongoing sequence of events by labeling one event as the cause and the following event as the response. In a situation with communication, if one thing happens, something else always happens. For example, a female in a relationship with a male is feeling depressed. The male in the relationship with the female feels guilty. One who observes this situation might ask, “Is she depressed because of his guilt, or does he feel guilty because of her depression?”

Human communication involves both digital and analog modalities: This axiom refers back to the use of non-verbals and system strategy explained in the first axiom. It is mostly related to the digital content of communication within a relationship.

Inter-human communication procedures are either symmetric or complementary: This axiom focuses on metacommunication with two main components called symmetrical interchange and complementary interchange. Symmetrical interchange is an interaction based on equal power between communicators. In accordance to that, complementary interchange is an interaction based on differences in power. Within these two interchanges there are three different ways they can be used: one-up, one-down, and one-across. With a one-up communication, one communicator attempts to gain control of an exchange by dominating the overall communication. A one-down communication has the opposite effect. A communicator attempts to yield control of an interaction or submit to someone. The final message is a one-across communication. This communication moves to neutralize a situation. This is also called transitory if only one communicator is attempting this style. When two communicators use the same style of one-up, one-down, or one-across, it is symmetrical. If they are opposing one another it is complementary. This axiom allows us to understand how an interaction can be perceived by the styles a communicator is using.

Additional notions

Some interrelated notions that make up the Interactional View promoted by Watzlawick and colleagues at the MRI include:

One cannot not communicate, and the related idea that one cannot not influence;

Understanding behavior as if we are constantly exchanging messages defining the nature of relationships of which we are a part;

Shifting focus of attention from intent to the effects of behavior as communication;

Observer-imposed punctuation;

Emphasizing the vital role of the therapist’s preconceptions in bringing forth socially constructed reality;

Investing the ramifications of self-fulfilling prophecy; and

Articulating and fully embracing the “as If” nature of behavior.

A term that is used often in the theory of the Interactional View is enabler. An enabler is within addiction culture; a person whose non-assertive behavior allows others to continue in their substance abuse. An example of this would be a person letting their sibling continue to act in an immature manner because that is what the family is used to him doing.

Another word frequently used in the Interactional View is double-bind. Someone in a double-bind, is a person trapped by expectations; the powerful party requests that the low-power party act symmetrically. An example of this would be a person asking another person, “Why didn’t you like the movie?” or “You like rock ‘n’ roll, don’t you?” The first person is asking the second person to act in a way that is similar (symmentrical) to them.

Extract from : Communication, seduction and manipulation

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